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Like all good success stories, the legend of Lakewood has that fairy-tale quality to its beginning. Late one night in 1939, as he was leaving a nightclub, John Osteen -- the son of cotton farmers -- felt God was calling him to something greater. After a friend urged him to attend a tent revival in Fort Worth, John accepted Christ and six weeks later found himself preaching in Paris, Texas, moving from schools to missions and nursing homes. The story goes that after he preached to one elderly woman, she paid him a quarter. Eventually, he was ordained a Southern Baptist minister and became known for his folksy, revivalist style.
"Daddy was a fireball," says Paul Osteen, one of the six children of John and his wife, Dodie, who still leads prayers at Lakewood. "But he wanted the people nobody else wanted. He didn't want to preach a gospel of condemnation."
John Osteen shunned the fire-and-brimstone sermons popular at that time and instead preached a simple message of love and eternal happiness by salvation through Jesus Christ. He craved preaching to those who felt lost and hopeless, say family members. But in the late 1950s, he took an even more unconventional turn by embracing the Pentecostal charismatic movement. The preacher encouraged speaking in tongues and loud, noisy worship services -- gifts of the Spirit made concrete. But soon his activities cost him the support of his denomination. The Southern Baptists considered such activity unbiblical and, truth be told, a bit strange.
"He was an extremely courageous person in the '50s, because he was kind of left isolated," says University of Houston religious studies professor Lynn Mitchell. "The Baptists were very much against it, but he appealed to so many people because it gave them the sense of the presence of God."
After being pushed out of the Southern Baptists (in a 1997 Houston Chronicle profile, John Osteen said he was treated as if he had the plague), he ventured briefly into the business world, but finally felt he had to open his own church. On Mother's Day in 1959, Lakewood Church welcomed about 90 members into a converted feed store in the same spot where the church stands today, on the northeast side of Houston just outside the 610 Loop. Apocryphal legend has it that the wooden floor slats of the building had such holes in them, people sometimes lost their money to the ground below during the offertory. John Osteen eventually came up with the nickname that would one day be plastered on thousands of bright blue bumper stickers all over Houston. Lakewood Church would be an "oasis of love" in a troubled world.
Right off the bat, Lakewood was unusual. And not just because members felt free to cry out during services, fall down on the ground and shake with excitement, or claim that the Holy Spirit had healed their physical illnesses. It was more than that. Because in 1959, in Texas, a white man had opened a church in what was -- and still is -- a primarily black neighborhood. And more than that, he invited area blacks and anyone else who wanted to show up to come on in. And they did. Perhaps at first out of curiosity. But John Osteen made them want to stay. Today, more than 40 years later, Lakewood Church is part of a tiny percentage of U.S. congregations considered racially integrated, meaning no one group makes up more than 80 percent of the membership (as one church attendee put it, "Lakewood's what heaven's gonna look like").
"It's one of the ironies of American denominational history," says professor Mitchell. "A lot of liberal churches, like the Episcopalians and the Methodists and so forth, often berate conservative Christians for being racist. But the fact of the matter is the Pentecostal movement has been integrated long before any of the major churches. And they are the best at it now."
The church's spirited services attracted more and more members, and by the late 1970s the church had outgrown the feed store and built a bigger space. As the church multiplied several times over, members got to know each other by involving themselves in all sorts of ministries -- everything from Helping Hands and Hospital Ministries to the Street Evangelism Ministry, which still heads downtown each week to try to win souls for Jesus. John and Dodie lived in what is now Kingwood and sent their six children to public schools. John focused on overseas missions and traveled quite often, preaching all over the world. But still, Lakewood Church did not have the same global reputation it enjoys today.
Then one day in 1983, John's youngest son, Joel, called him from Tulsa, where he was a freshman at Oral Roberts University. Joel told his daddy he had an idea: He was going to drop out of college and put Lakewood on TV.
Given his weekly performances on stage, it would be easy to expect Joel Osteen to be loud, maybe even a little too in-your-face, when he's off-stage. But strangely enough, he comes off a bit shy, a description his wife, Victoria, agrees with. One-on-one, Osteen is soft-spoken, and there is no attempt to fill every minute with conversation. Waiting for his meal at a restaurant, he fiddles a bit with the forks set out on the table. And when speaking about his brother Paul, a former surgeon who now works at the church, he says almost wistfully, "Paul is so good with people." As if somehow Osteen thinks he isn't. In fact, when Osteen first started preaching at Lakewood, the guys he'd played basketball with forever told him they heard him say more in one day's sermon than in ten years of shooting hoops at the gym.